Science and Engineering Infrastructure for the 21st Century


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Last Updated: 09/15/2015




Terms of ReferenceSince the beginning of civilization, the tools humans invented and used have enabled them to pursue and realize their dreams. New tools have opened vast research and education vistas and enabled scientists and engineers to explore new regimes of time and space. Advanced techniques in areas such as microscopy, spectroscopy, and laser technology have made it possible to image and manipulate individual atoms and fabricate new materials. Advances in radio astronomy and instrumentation at the South Pole have allowed scientists to probe the furthest reaches of time and space and unlock secrets of the universe. Communications and computational technologies, such as interoperable databases and informatics, are revolutionizing such fields as biology and the social sciences. With the advent of high-speed computer-communication networks, greater numbers of educational institutions now have access to cutting-edge research and education tools and infrastructure.

It is useful to distinguish between the terms "tool" and "infrastructure." Webster's Third New International Dictionary provides only one definition of infrastructure: "an underlying foundation or basic framework (as of an organization or system)." It provides many definitions of tool, the most applicable being "anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose." Given these definitions, it may be useful to assume that infrastructure not only includes tools but also provides the basis, foundation, and/or support for the creation of tools.4

"Research infrastructure" is a term that is commonly used to describe the tools, services, and installations that are needed for the Science and Engineering (S&E) research community to function and for researchers to do their work. For the purposes of this study, it includes: (1) hardware (tools, equipment, instrumentation, platforms and facilities), (2) software (enabling computer systems, libraries, databases, data analysis and data interpretation systems, and communication networks), (3) the technical support (human or automated) and services needed to operate the infrastructure and keep it working effectively, and (4) the special environments and installations (such as buildings and research space) necessary to effectively create, deploy, access, and use the research tools.

An increasing amount of the equipment and systems that enable the advancement of research are large-scale, complex, and costly. "Facility" is frequently used to describe such equipment because typically the equipment requires special sites or buildings to house it and a dedicated staff to effectively maintain the equipment. Increasingly, many researchers working in related disciplines share the use of such large facilities, either on site or remotely. "Cyberinfrastructure" is used in this report to connote a comprehensive infrastructure based upon distributed networks of computers, information resources, online instruments, data analysis and interpretation tools, relevant computerized tutorials for the use of such technology, and human interfaces. The term provides a way to discuss the infrastructure enabled by distributed computer-communications technology in contrast to the more traditional physical infrastructure. 5

There can be no doubt that a modern and effective research infrastructure is critical to maintaining U.S. leadership in S&E. The degree to which infrastructure is regarded as central to experimental research is indicated by the number of Nobel Prizes awarded for the development of new instrument technology. During the past 20 years, eight Nobel Prizes in physics were awarded for technologies such as the electron and scanning tunneling microscopes, laser and neutron spectroscopy, particle detectors, and the integrated circuit. 6

Much has changed since the last major assessments of the academic S&E infrastructure were conducted over a decade ago. For example:

  • Research questions require approaches that are increasingly multidisciplinary, and involve a broader spectrum of disciplines. Collaboration among disciplines is increasing at an unprecedented rate.
  • Researchers are addressing phenomena that are beyond the temporal and spatial limits of current measurement capabilities. Many viable research questions can be answered only through the use of new generations of powerful tools.
  • Enabled by information technology (IT), a qualitatively different and new S&E infrastructure has evolved, delivering greater computational power, increased access, distribution and shared use, and new research tools, such as flexible, programmable statistics packages, many forms of automated aids for data interpretation, and Web-accessible databases, archives, and collaboratories. IT enables the collection and processing of data that could not have been collected or processed before. Increasingly, researchers are expressing a compelling need for access to these new IT-based research tools.
  • International cooperation and partnerships are increasingly used to construct and operate large and costly research facilities. With many international projects looming on the horizon, the U.S. Congress and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) are concerned about the management of these complex relationships.
  • The reality of today's world requires that academe secure its research infrastructure and institute safeguards for its working environment and critical systems. Issues are also being raised about the security of information developed by scientists and engineers, such as genomic databases.

These changes have created unprecedented challenges and opportunities for 21st century scientists and engineers. Consequently, the National Science Board (NSB) determined that a fresh assessment of the national infrastructure for academic S&E research was needed to ensure its future quality and availability.


In September 2000 the NSB established the Task Force on Science and Engineering Infrastructure (INF), under the auspices of its Committee on Programs and Plans (CPP). In summary, the INF was charged to:

"Undertake and guide an assessment of the fundamental science and engineering infrastructure in the United States … with the aim of informing the national dialogue on S&E infrastructure and highlighting the role of NSF as well as the larger resource and management strategies of interest to Federal policymakers in both the executive and legislative branches. The report should enable an assessment of the current status of the national S&E infrastructure, the changing needs of S&E, and the requirements for a capability of appropriate quality, size, and scope to ensure continuing U.S. leadership." 7

In its early organizing meetings and in discussions with the CPP, the INF defined the scope and terms of reference for the study. Because the charge focused on "fundamental science and engineering," the INF decided to address primarily the infrastructure needs of the academic research community, including infrastructure at national laboratories or in other countries, as long as it served the needs of academic researchers. The INF also determined that the study should focus on "research" infrastructure, in contrast to infrastructure serving purely educational purposes, such as classrooms, teaching laboratories, and training facilities. However, the INF recognized that many cutting-edge research facilities are "dual use," in that they provide excellent opportunities for education and training as well as research. Such infrastructure was included within this study.

Finally, while the study was concerned with the status of the entire academic research infrastructure, the task force decided that it should provide an in-depth analysis of National Science Foundation's (NSF) infrastructure policies, programs, and activities, including a look at future needs, challenges and opportunities. This approach was taken for the purpose of providing specific advice to the NSF Director and the National Science Board. While other research and development (R&D) agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Department of Energy (DoE), Department of Defense (DoD), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) play an important role in serving the infrastructure needs of academic researchers, detailed analyses of their infrastructure support programs are not provided in this report.


In responding to its charge, the Task Force recognized certain limits in what it could do. Conducting a new comprehensive survey of academic institutions was not deemed to be practical, in that it would take too much time to accomplish. As an alternative, the INF engaged in a number of parallel activities designed to assess the general state and direction of the academic research infrastructure and illuminate the most promising future opportunities. The principal activities were the following:

  • The INF surveyed the current literature, including reviewing and considering the findings of more than 60 reports, studies, and planning documents.8
  • Representatives from other agencies, such as NASA, DoE, OMB and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) made presentations to the INF and responded to many questions. In addition, specialists were invited to address the task force on relevant topics at several meetings.
  • The seven NSF directorates 9 and the Office of Polar Programs (OPP) provided assessments of the current state of the research infrastructure serving the S&E fields they support, as well as an assessment of future infrastructure needs and opportunities through 2010. Senior staff in these organizations also made presentations and supplied additional material to the task force and frequently attended its meetings.
  • On numerous occasions, drafts of the report were presented to and discussed with the NSF Director's Policy Group, the NSB Committee on Programs and Plans, and the full National Science Board.
  • The draft report was then released for public comment on the NSB/INF Web site. Many comments were received. 10 Feedback from a wide range of sources was carefully considered in producing the final draft of this report, which was unanimously approved by the NSB on February 6, 2003.






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